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COVER STORY: THE INCUMBENT

The 3 a.m. Strategy

Even as Romney and Gingrich denounce him as weak, Obama will present himself as the toughest Democratic president on national security since JFK. He may have a case.

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In control: Obama gave his first major speech about the Arab world in Cairo. With the economy in shambles, he will run on his foreign-policy successes.(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

You can almost read the script back to them before they say it. (It’s a hackneyed script, after all.) Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich slam President Obama for his weakness on foreign policy. Democrats are, we know, always weenies. Republicans are always tough guys. National security is our issue: GOP, sole proprietor. The lines come naturally: “If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me … Iran will not,” Romney declared at one of the early debates. He has called Obama an appeaser who apologizes for America, saying that it’s wrong for the president to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He denounced Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq as “a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations.” Gingrich, meanwhile, has declared that Obama is “so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong.” The former House speaker has castigated the president for postponing military exercises with the Israelis (even though it was the Israelis who asked for the delay). And, deploying his usual apocalyptic rhetoric, he regularly calls Obama “the most dangerous president in our lifetime.”

No one expects foreign policy to be a major issue in a campaign that hinges mainly on the fate of America’s beleaguered economy (unless something really big, like a war with Iran, happens between now and November). Nonetheless, in an election expected to be very close, the public’s perception of who makes a better commander in chief could be the difference. The “3 a.m.” test—that emergency phone call—helps voters decide whom they want to depend on in a crisis. (Ironically, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who raised this question as a criticism of Obama in 2008.) That’s especially true considering what Republicans have said they’ll do overseas if elected: confront Iran even more aggressively, refuse to leave Afghanistan, return to Iraq. Romney even suggested that the United States should attack Iran to destroy a captured drone; Rick Santorum has called outright for war against that Islamic republic.

 

Accordingly, the Obama camp spies a big electoral opportunity. With only a middling case that the president’s economic record qualifies him for a second term, the White House and Obama’s Chicago-based campaign staff are preparing a careful effort to cast him as the most impressive Democratic president on national security in decades, National Journal has learned. They are eager to restore Democrats to a time before the Vietnam War, when Americans viewed the party as relatively strong on foreign policy and national security. And more, harking back to Lyndon Johnson’s effective 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater as a warmonger, they will try to use the extreme GOP rhetoric to remind the electorate of another Republican whom the GOP would prefer to forget: George W. Bush.

The Democrats will argue, in other words, that only Obama can use American power wisely enough to simultaneously keep the country out of another war and restore U.S. stature in the world. “It’s a question of what kind of a commander in chief do you want. You have only one chance to get it right,” says a Chicago-based Obama campaign official who would discuss strategy only on condition of anonymity. “On issue after issue, Romney has changed his positions. In some cases, he is to the right of the Bush administration.”

THE RECORD

Despite the GOP candidates’ derision, many Republican foreign-policy professionals—some of whom worked for Bush 43—agree that the 44th president has been impressive on these issues overall. They say that he should get credit in areas that go well beyond the takedown of Osama bin Laden (and most of his top lieutenants). They cite Obama’s effort to squeeze Iran in the last year. And the way the president has refocused diplomatic and military resources to constrain—but not “contain,” which sounds a beat too aggressive—China. And the dexterous way he has used force to fight terrorism. And the way he helped oust Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi without a single American casualty. (With cover from NATO and the Arab League, it might have been the least costly and most internationally supported policy of regime change in U.S. history.) “I would regard this as the most capable and purposeful Democratic administration in foreign policy since John F. Kennedy’s,” says Philip Zelikow, a senior counselor to Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of State.

 

That’s a telling comparison. Kennedy looms larger in myth than in actual achievement, but he gets credit for standing down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, and he was assassinated before he could make a decision on whether to ramp up in Vietnam. Most important, however, he was the last Democratic president before his party’s reputation in foreign policy suffered a long-term blow in Vietnam. That quagmire helped persuade President Johnson not to run for reelection in 1968. President Carter also suffered from a fatal perception of weakness that culminated in the Iran hostage crisis and the disastrous Desert One rescue mission. President Clinton fares better in posterity, and he grew more comfortable with using power toward the end of his second term, especially after his early misfire in Somalia, where 18 Army Rangers were killed in another failed rescue attempt. But Republicans saw Clinton’s cautious air attacks on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as squeamish and criticized his reluctance to go after bin Laden in Afghanistan.

This article appears in the January 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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